Dating Old Tamil Cankam poetry

George Hart glhart at BERKELEY.EDU
Thu Jul 31 14:34:07 UTC 2008

Dear Professor Tieken,

I did react before reading your book, as the its conclusions seemed so  
strange to me.  I must say, after reading it and going very carefully  
over every page, that impression has only grown stronger.  I am  
currently working through the Akananuru, and I find evidence  
everywhere that the dating of the first 3 centuries CE is correct.  I  
don't think this is the place to go over all the arguments once again  
-- but here are a few that seem relevant.

1. The number and use of Sanskrit/Prakrit borrowings is quite  
different from texts that are later (like the Cilappatikaaram, roughly  
5th century AD).

2. The use of language and its form is clearly more archaic than in  
slightly later texts.

3. The culture described is exactly what we would expect from  
archeological work done on that period.

4. The chronology of the poets and kings is internally consistent --  
this includes thousands of names.  This could not have been remembered  
for many centuries so accurately.

5. The names are different from later texts and inscriptions -- they  
are clearly older and belong to an older stratum.

6. The description of Muciri accords perfectly with archeological  
finds and Roman texts from the first three centuries CE -- see 

7. In order to date Sangam texts in the 10th century, we would have to  
move all of Tamil literature up by at least 7 centuries (and this  
includes dozens of texts whose dates have been carefully researched),  
at least everything before Kamban.  This would be a feat of  
legerdemain that would be equivalent to dating the Rig Veda in the 3rd  
century BCE.  That, of course, would mess up our Sanskrit chronology  
somewhat -- could the Rig Veda be an elaborate and ingenious forgery  
that was made to elevate the status of the Brahmins?

8. In working through the Akananuru, it is immediately apparent that  
poems attributed to different poets (ParaNar and Kapilar, for example)  
have quite different styles and different sensibilities.  It would  
appear virtually certain that they were written by different people.

9. As for the names, poems do give slightly different names for the  
same king.  The fact is, these names are not found in later times --  
and the names Irumporai, Perunkatunkoo, Katunkoo do occur in Sangam  

8. It is always possible to take issue, one by one, with items used to  
establish chronology, especially in South Asia, where dating often  
seems tenuous.  It is necessary to look over a whole system of  
correlating evidence to arrive at a date.  In the case of Sangam  
literature, surely there is so much evidence pointing to the first 3  
centuries CE that the accepted dating becomes unassailable.

Yet it would appear that, however much it is flogged, this horse  
refuses to die.

George Hart

On Jul 31, 2008, at 6:28 AM, Tieken, H.J.H. wrote:

> Dear list members,
> The indology list of August 27th 2001 carried a message containing  
> George Hart's reaction on the publication on this same list of the  
> text on the cover of my book Kavya in South India. Hart had not yet  
> read the book but this did not prevent him from writing a lengthy  
> reaction, explaining why my ideas could not be right. My reaction  
> provoked another one, etc. At that point I wrote that I would  
> refrain from any further discussion and wait for the appearance of  
> Hart's "official" review in JAOS. This review has appeared in 2004.  
> Some of the members of this list might be interested to know that,  
> after some delay, my reaction to Hart's review (and also to the one  
> written by Eva Wilden in WZKS in 2002) has now appeared in  
> Asiatische Studien/Études Asiatiques LXII/2 (2008) 575-605. My  
> rejonder is titled: A Propos Three Recent Publications on the  
> Question of the Dating of Old Tamil Cankam Poetry.
> I like to quote one brief passage from it here:
> The second piece of evidence [for an early date of Cankam poetry]  
> put forward by Hart is that the names of some of the kings mentioned  
> in Ca?kam poetry have been found in the Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions.  
> Hart refers here to the names of three consecutive generations of  
> kings of the Irumporai dynasty found in the Patirruppattu [a Cankam  
> text] and in the Pugalur inscriptions of the second century. The  
> identification of the two sets of names keeps cropping up, most  
> recently again in Eva Wilden's review of my book (WZKS 2002). I  
> wonder, however, if anyone has recently cared to have a good look at  
> the two sets of names. Hart and Wilden obviously did not, for if  
> they had, they would inevitably have come to the conclusion that the  
> names are not similar at all. Below the two sets are give as they  
> are presented by Mahadevan (2003):
> 1) Ko Atan Cel Irumporai of the inscription would correspond to  
> Celva-k-katunko Vali-y Atan of the 7th decade of the Patirruppattu;
> 2) Perunkatunkon would correspond to Perun-ceral Irumporai of the  
> 8th decade;
> 3) Katunkon Ilankatunko to Ilan-ceral Irumporai of the 9th decade.
> Another question is what it would prove for the date of Cankam  
> poetry if the names had been the same. For we do not date Kalidasa  
> in the Sunga period because his Malavikagnimitra is situated in that  
> period. In fact, the same argument applies to Hart's fourth piece of  
> evidence [for dating Cankam poetry in the very beginning of our  
> era], namely that the poems refer to trade with the Roman world:  
> similar references are found in the Dasakumaracarita of the seventh- 
> century South Indian writer Dandin.
> In a message on the Indology list of December 30th 2001 Hart wrote:  
> "[W]hat concerns him most is that Prof. Tieken's thesis will be  
> accepted by Sanskritists, who have no way of judging its validity."  
> I suggest to him that we leave it to others now to judge our  
> arguments.
> Herman Tieken

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